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« Regulatory Damage | Main | No Simple Solutions »

February 23, 2004


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Maybe the human race is the self-replicating gray goo we so desperately fear. It's the defects in our own makeup we need to correct in order to render the world safe from such a threat.

Brett Bellmore

Part of the horror of the "grey goo" scenario is the "greyness" of it. The prospect that the entire ecosystem might be replaced by one design of replicator, which because of good error checking, and single point failure design, would never evolve into anything more interesting. A nanotech replicator which could evolve would be much more complex a design job, than one that couldn't.

jim moore


Timeline: several years after the widescale introduction of nanofactories.

At first my work on litter-bots seemed so harmless. The problem of discarded or abandoned nano-products was starting to get serious. I mean you couldn't take a spider walk without comming across hundreds of broken relays and sensors, video paper every wear, and if I ever find the idiots who designed the Fatty Patty doll I will wring thier necks. In one week alone three of the damn things exploded in my yard. But anyway, back to the litter-bots, I wanted to design an automated trash removal system. As every designer knows there are about 40 major nanoblocks and a few hundred rarely used nanoblocks in all nanofac products. So I went out and started to pick up a fair amount of nanolitter and brought it back to the house. I tossed the nano-litter into the recycler and averaged over 90% recovery of nanoblocks in the litter. Thats when the thought occured to me, make a robot that would search out and bring nanolitter back to the cycler, use the cycler to break the litter up into nanoblocks then use the nanofac to make more litter-bots. And if I would have just left it there things wouldn't have gone bad. But no, I had to make things efficient, elegant, aesthetically pleasing. That night i had a vivid dream. In the dream I watched a snake eat its own tail untill there was no more snake.

Project Oroboros was born the next morning. I networked up with my mates and we got to work combining a mobile robot with a 'cycler and a nanofac. The first generation actually looked and moved like a snake. We were so proud, it would slither up to a communitations relay and swallow the globe. Next came ther really difficult step, recycling the nanoblocks. Normally 'cyclers are about as big as an old fashion washing machine, ours needs to be smaller than the snake. We realized that we only needed to identify, sort, test and reassemble the nanoblocks used in the design for Oroboros. That simplified the requirments and gave us something else an energy source. All of the unused nanoblocks are burned in an generator. Our assembler system was greatly simplified by making only one product and not having to make any nanoblocks from scratch. So after Oroboros finds enogh "food" (nano-litter) it repoduces itself.

We thought we had the solution, it was so .... ecological. It was technology imitating life. We went public with the designs, and it was such a sensation, it promised to solve the nano-litter problem and the snakes looked so cool with their video-scales. We were riding so high, we had just recieved the Adams Award (given to the most clever design of the year) when things started to go wrong.

Janessa Ravenwood

Trying to decide if this is a clever idea or alarmism. Hmmm...perhaps both!

Mike Treder, CRN

Jim, this is fascinating. Will the story continue?

Bravo Romeo Delta

Lot of thinking out loud here, so bear with me.

Killer nanobots, while much easier to make than goo, have limitations. For starters, they're slow. If you do something like load up a UAV with the little buggers, then you get into air defence problems. Aside from developments in tracking, cruis missile defence and directed energy weapons, you've got the fact that it wouldn't be that darned hard to make something like Stephenson's dogpod grid, with a simple modification, the little buggers fly into the intakes of vehicles that aren't authorized or identified.

But if you want to get around the air defence problem, you have to send in the killer bugs by themselves. But if you start down that path, then why not have killer-bug-predators? And predator-predators, and so on. Think about the ongoing evolution of airpower, and how every advance is met with a response, and just imagine that at the killer bug level.

This is one of the biggest reasons the 5.56 mm 55 grain KKV will be around for a while, is that countermeasures are ferociously difficult.

Now something like the killer bugs might be great for assassination, or against less advanced opponents, but otherwise...

One application worth thinking about is a bug that seeks out propellant, primers, explosives and compounds of that ilk and detonates them prematurely, makes them unstable or makes them inert. One's own forces could be protected by putting an additive in one's own (or allied) materials, which the muncher would then be able to tell that this stuff should be left alone.

This would be of fair-to middling use in a high- to medium-intensity conflict, for many of the same reasons that the killer mosquitos aren't really good in a hot war, but of incredible value in low intensity warfare, as it would make some of the cheapest, easiest to use, and best established means of killing folks (guns and explosives) difficult to use.

Lot of other stuff rattling around in my mellon on this business, but it may need to stew for a bit.

Chris Phoenix, CRN

Aerial arms races: Yes, there'll surely be ways of knocking your opponents out of the air, and a race between offense and defense. We can expect such things to develop quite rapidly. I still don't know whether offense or defense will be more effective. At the moment I'm thinking it'll be defense, but I go back and forth on the question every month or so.

Countermeasures for bullets: A few years ago I read about a mechanical countermeasure. Basically an airbag linked to a radar system. It would detect the bullet in flight, and put up a curtain. It could be hidden in a planter box beside a walkway. I don't know the response time. Sounds like science fiction, but it was written up as fact, and under development.

NanoBugs to destroy explosives: To defeat them, you'd just have to hermetically seal the explosives. Like the plastic wrap commercial: "A lion won't eat what it can't smell."


Chris Phoenix, CRN


(Just for fun; I don't think this is especially plausible.)

"AAAGH, damnit!"
The airlock door slid the rest of the way open.
"What happened, Sarge?" No one looked; they knew he'd be naked.
"It burned me! Someone get a medkit over here."
Now they looked. Small black holes dotted his hands and face, a few trailing up his arms. His hair was gone, but that was normal.
While one got the kit, another unfolded his wrister and spoke to it. After a minute he raised his voice. "Sarge, how long were you out there?"
"What, after I got the warning? Thirty seconds, tops. It's supposed to be OK for a minute."
"Not anymore. We just got an update. They're using something new, and it burrows. Now we've just got ten seconds. Twenty, with a suit. More than thirty, it can get to your bloodstream, and then it takes a lot bigger burn to get it out."
"Dammit, you can't do anything in ten seconds! The mission requires thirty."
"I know. They recommend we keep a medkit in the airlock."
Grim chuckles all around. Someone muttered what they were all thinking. "I wonder what they'll be hitting us with tomorrow?"


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